January 25, 2013  |  Collection & Exhibitions, Publications
For the sake of thought: Provoke, 1968–1970



Provoke (Purovōku) was an experimental magazine founded by photographers Yutaka Takanashi and Takuma Nakahira, critic Koji Taki, and writer Takahiko Okada in 1968. The magazine’s subtitle read as: shisō no tame no chōhatsuteki shiryō (Provocative documents for the sake of thought). Photographer Daido Moriyama is most often associated with the publication, but Moriyama did not join the magazine until the second issue. Provoke lasted only three issues with a small print run, but remains an important cultural artifact of the postwar era. In Tokyo 1955–1970: A New Avant-Garde, the exhibition catalogue published to accompany the current MoMA exhibition, art historian Yuri Mitsuda refers to are, bure, boke,  translated as “grainy, blurry, and out-of-focus,” a style of photography popularized in Japan in the late 1960s. One of the first and, I think, best examples of the style dominated the pages of Provoke, whose aesthetic came to define postwar Japanese art photography: saturated to the point of looking wet, content savagely abstracted, and forms leaden or hallucinatory. This are, bure, boke style and the dark portrayal of postwar Japanese society lay in sharp contrast to the existing public imagery of the era. The magazine sought to be, in accordance with its namesake, a provocation to Japanese society and specifically its photographic culture, at the time mostly relegated to staid, European-style photojournalism and straightforward commercial photography. They sought to awaken and refresh the aesthetics of existing photography and question the increasingly commercial visual language of Japanese society following the havoc wreaked by war. Considering Provoke, I recall artist Dan Graham once saying of his conceptual magazine works, “I love magazines because they are like pop songs, easily disposable, dealing with momentary pleasures.”

Indeed, a strength of the magazine as medium is its very ephemerality and serial nature. It has the ability to capture the artist’s pure reaction and burning mood, and in the case of Provoke, a sort of subdued anti-commerciality following national tragedy. Magazines are rarely difficult to produce or consume and can be more widely circulated than other kinds of artwork. And because they are often produced in editions, the weight of a single issue isn’t as highly estimated in the artist or audience’s mind as a singular painting or sculpture might be. While Provoke is far from being considered disposable (now rare and highly collectible), it’s useful to consider these rudiments of magazine as conceptual medium in the case of Provoke and its legacy.

Read more about Provoke in the catalogue and see examples of are, bure, boke photography  in the exhibition Tokyo 1955–1970: A New Avant-Garde, on view through February 25 in The International Council of The Museum of Modern Art Exhibition Gallery on the sixth floor.